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UNHCR stresses urgent need for States to end unlawful detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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UNHCR stresses urgent need for States to end unlawful detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, amidst COVID-19 pandemic

24 July 2020
UNHCR calls for all arbitrary detainees to be released due to COVID-19.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is calling today on States to urgently release refugees and asylum-seekers who are being unlawfully and arbitrarily held in detention. States must act to ensure their actions are in line with international law and that amidst the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, vulnerable refugees are not being placed at heightened, unnecessary risk.

“Refugees fleeing war and persecution should not be punished or criminalized simply for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum,” said Gillian Triggs, UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees for Protection. “Measures to tackle COVID19 do not justify arbitrarily detaining them on arrival, which not only worsens the misery of people who have already suffered, but also undermines efforts to limit the spread of the virus.”

As part of its role on the Executive Committee of the UN Network on Migration, and as co-lead for the Alternatives to Detention Working Group, UNHCR echoes the Network's call ;on States to reaffirm their commitment to adopting a human rights-based approach to the detention of newly arriving refugees and migrants and to prioritize non-custodial alternatives.

UNHCR welcomes the positive efforts that have been made by a number of States, which have released refugees and asylum-seekers from detention during the pandemic. Such efforts prove the viability of community-based alternatives and provide a blueprint for developing new, long-term, rights-based approaches to receiving refugees and asylum-seekers.

Suitable approaches will vary depending on the context but may include, amongst others, the deposit or surrender of documentation; reasonable and proportionate reporting conditions; residence at a specific location; residence at open or semi-open asylum centres or community supervision arrangements.

However, some States are using the pandemic as justification to resort to increasingly regressive measures, including detaining refugees and asylum-seekers in greater numbers, for longer or arbitrary periods of time, or without access to due process.

UNHCR is concerned that many detained refugees and asylum-seekers are often forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions where they are unable to practice social and physical distancing measures and have limited or no access to adequate healthcare and clean water. In some detention centres, tensions are reaching boiling point as detainees’ anxieties rise about their health and welfare.

Under international law and in line with UNHCR guidance, detention of refugees and asylum-seekers for administrative purposes must be used as a last resort, in the absence of viable alternatives, and for a legitimate purpose, for example, to verify an individual’s identity, conduct a preliminary asylum interview, where there are significant security concerns or where there are strong grounds for believing an individual is likely to abscond.

Detention must be based on individual assessments, subject to procedural safeguards, and in accordance with and authorized by clearly defined laws and limits. Maximum periods of detention should be set and asylum-seekers must be immediately released once the justifications for their detention are no longer valid.

Children should never be held in immigration detention. This can never be considered to be in the child’s best interest, which must be a primary consideration under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Temporary measures by States for new arrivals, such as quarantines or restrictions on movement, owing to the COVID19 pandemic are understandable. However, restrictions on this basis should only last as long as strictly necessary for ensuring an individual’s health status.

UNHCR is calling on State to adopt the following immediate measures to help avert a catastrophic outbreak of COVID19 in a detention centre:

  • Immediately release all refugees and asylum-seekers who are being arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, including those in pre-removal detention where deportations have been suspended
  • Scale up and implement community-based alternatives to detention, including in place of detention for newly-arriving refugees and asylum-seekers
  • Improve conditions in places of detention while alternatives are being prepared, and ensure that UNHCR continues to have access to asylum seekers and refugees being held in these locations


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